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Life in focus: The hope and resilience of a Colorado photographer’s fight with stage 4 cancer

Posted: 5:18 AM, Feb 07, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-08 01:19:32-05
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The black and white photo demands attention.

It’s a self-portrait of Scott Wilson. Against a black background, he’s standing with his arms crossed in front of his bare chest, his hands in tight fists. His face shows the gentle strength that comes with a fight long fought.

But perhaps the most striking part of the image is the long scar across his abdomen, with the word “SURVIVOR” written above it in marker.

Wilson, a 52-year-old professional photographer originally from Scotland but now in Greenwood Village, has been battling stage 4 colorectal cancer — and an extreme skin sensitivity to sunlight from his treatment — since he was diagnosed in August 2016.

On an afternoon in early January, he held up the 17x22 black and white photo in his home studio.

“I have to be honest — at first, I felt a little bit awkward,” he said about the portrait, which he took during the summer of 2019. “I'm sort of standing there and baring my soul and baring everything, including my scars. But I think, through time, I've really grown to recognize its power and its strength in actually giving other people hope. I’ve gotten over any misgivings I’ve had about it. I'm very proud of it.”

After about 100 takes with a self-timer, he got the shot he wanted.

Life in focus: The hope and resilience of a Colorado photographer’s fight with stage 4 cancer

Video by Denver7 photojournalist Andrew Bray & Digital Content Producer Ryan Osborne

He said he was moved to take the photo after attending a convention for colorectal survivors and fighters, and meeting a 17-year-old boy with stage 4 colorectal cancer.

“I don't usually get angry about cancer,” he said. “I certainly don't get angry about myself having cancer. But I came home and I was angry, and I just wanted to do something that showed my defiance and would hopefully give hope to other people.”

Before he took the photo, he asked his daughter to write “SURVIVOR” above the scar from his liver resection.

“It's funny enough — a lot of people have said since, ’You've really got to get that tattoo,’” he said, laughing. “My wife said it's not happening, but I might surprise her one day.”

Against massive odds, he completed his chemotherapy and now undergoes immunotherapy, also known as maintenance treatments, to keep the cancer cells at bay.

He published the photo on his website and social media, in hopes of inspiring people going through their own battles. His son, 18 at the time, described the photo as “badass,” Wilson said, wiping a tear.

Wilson’s photography is more than just something pretty to look at. The images have prompted emotion that Wilson couldn’t have predicted, and even encouraged one woman who had been fighting colorectal cancer in secret for nine months to open up to her family and friends about her diagnosis and upcoming surgery.

“That was life-changing for her and absolutely emotionally charged for me to hear that kind of reaction to my photography,” he said.

The woman keeps the portrait on her refrigerator as a source of inspiration through her treatment and the two regularly talk on Facebook, he said.

“I think if you’re surviving cancer, you have a duty to pass along hope,” Wilson said.

And he does that, through his snapshots of life, even when his grueling cancer treatment nearly took photography away from him.

Getting behind the lens

The first push to try photography came when Wilson was almost 30 years old as he washed dishes in his home about 20 miles outside of Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom.

From the sink, he looked up out the window and saw two pairs of eyes staring back at him. Two deer. A normal experience for a Coloradoan, but an unusual and exhilarating one for Wilson.

He blurted out, “Darling, where’s my camera?” to the confusion of his wife. She knew, as did he, that he didn’t actually own one. But it was an instinctual reaction, like some motor inside him gently rumbling to life. Like a sign from the universe.

“That’s the moment I realized I really wanted to start to capture some of the sights and sounds around me,” he said.

And start he did. Over the course of more than a dozen years, he taught himself the buttons and dials and features of a camera, perfecting the craft to the point of earning a spot among the finalists in the UK Landscape Photographer of the Year competition four times in four years.

All the while, he was working remotely for a beer company based out of Colorado.

In August 2015, after he was offered a job at its headquarters, he, along with his wife and their two children, moved across the Atlantic and found a home near Cherry Creek State Park.

“As a landscape photographer, the opportunity to explore Colorado was just absolutely fantastic,” he said. “We were so excited. The family came over for a little pre-trip before we moved, and everybody fell in love with the state so quickly.”

They were breathing in their new home, exploring the far stretches, tourist spots, and hidden corners of Colorado. Gobbling up the beauty. And then, about a year after they had first arrived — a bitter discovery in a doctor’s office.

The beginning of a journey with cancer

The words flew around the doctor’s office at the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center.

Colorectal cancer.

Stage 4.

Metastasis to his liver.

Survival rate — 10%.

Photography immediately fell to the wayside. Wilson talked with his oncologist, who explained there was a treatment program available for him. It would involve 40 weeks of aggressive chemotherapy.

He learned it is one of the most preventable cancers, but also the second-most deadly.

He began treatment in October 2016.

Chemotherapy comes with all kinds of challenging side effects. The specific chemo Wilson’s oncologist recommended included a drug called panitumumab. As it keeps cancer cells at bay, it also breaks down the skin’s immune system, causing irritation when exposed to sunlight.

“Honestly, when you’re trying to beat cancer, you’ll take anything that’s going to help you stay alive,” Wilson said. “It’s a small price to pay.”

Keeping some sort of normalcy for his kids was, and continues to be, a priority, he said.

“All through my treatment, I continued to attend every single sports event,” he said. “I was just covered in a facemask and a big hat, but I didn't want to miss any events and just help them live as normal of a life as possible.”

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He said he also wants to ensure they’re never afraid of getting screened because it is such a preventable disease when caught early.

“The survival rate of stage 1 is something like 90 percent, so obviously getting ahead of that is preferable,” he said. “Getting screened, getting early — this is a survivable disease. I just happened to be very lucky, at stage 4, to be in this position.”

Today he’s more of an advocate than a patient, though he still gets a dose of panitumumab in immunotherapy every two to three weeks, so he continues to have sensitivity to sunlight.

There’s no end for the treatment in sight, as of now. Stage 4 long-term survival is so new that doctors are still figuring out how to treat patients and ensure the cancer doesn’t come back, Wilson said.

He said the number of people who stay on the treatment and reach remission, like him, is about equal to the number of people who stop treatment and reach remission.

“We're probably decades away from that being an exact science,” he said.

Through challenges of chemo, photo book raises thousands for research

The cancer diagnosis changed much of Wilson’s life and the panitumumab’s effects threw a wrench into his normal routine for photography.

“Suddenly, my landscape pursuits were a little more difficult and my energy was a little bit lower with the chemotherapy,” he said.

But the idea of setting aside his photography passion through the chemotherapy was emotionally daunting, he said. So, it wasn’t long before his photography pursuits crept back into his mind, even though he knew he couldn’t be in sunlight.

“I was determined to shoot,” he said.

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With his camera gear over his shoulder, Scott Wilson walks to the trailhead to Bear Lake.

But he faced a few challenges — he started to experience neuropathy, or numbness, in his fingertips (though a drop of paint on the camera shutter fixed this, creating an abrasive surface to feel). His energy levels were low from the chemotherapy. And of course, he couldn't be in sunlight.

Then something clicked: If he couldn’t go outside to take photos, he wouldn’t have to be outside, technically speaking. Many Colorado Parks and Wildlife parks have road systems that could allow him to stay in his car and shoot from inside. He could drive in, park and set up to photograph, all within the shade of his car.

Wilson quickly found photographing from the car was more difficult for the landscape shoots he was accustomed to it, but it opened the door to wildlife photography.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was fulfilling enough. And in some ways, staying inside the car came with a few unanticipated benefits.

For one, animals seemed more inclined to stray closer to a still car than a moving person. It’s like a portable hide, Wilson said.

And two, he had the convenience in the lull of activity to retreat into the back of the car. Often, he’d come home from six hours of grueling treatment and head to Rocky Mountain National Park, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal or Cherry Creek State Park. And between shoots, he’d think.

It sounds like a gloomy situation — sitting alone, often in the middle of nowhere, all too aware of the internal fight in his body.

“Many people say, ‘How can you sit for hours in your car thinking about stage 4 cancer?’” he said. “The experience is the opposite for me. It was a real place to escape and enjoy nature. I find in those dwell times — when I was waiting for something to happen — I was writing my story. I was actually taking notes and working on my phone and et cetera and came home in the evening and transcribed what I’d written in the car. And that basically became the book.”

He’d built a portfolio of wildlife photography and all the while, wanted to do something to help the colorectal cancer community. Those ideas rolled into one with “Through the Window.”

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Scott Wilson photographed these mustangs fighting in the Sand Wash Basin on a November day.

In partnership with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance, he launched a book that was part-photography, part-cancer story in August 2017.

Despite his bleak diagnosis, Wilson said readers won’t find one negative sentence in the entire book. In fact, the first line reads, “I’m a lucky guy.”

In addition to his cancer story, the book is filled with the wildlife pictures he shot from within the car throughout his chemotherapy. He used, and still does use, what he described as a “glorified bean bag” to stabilize the camera lens on the open window of his car. Then he turns the car off to reduce vibration and shoots.

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Scott Wilson shoots using a bean bag out his car window. He said the bean bag keeps the camera sturdy just as much as a tripod.

In total, the “Through the Window” has raised more than $40,000 for the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

“If ‘Through the Window’ helps even one cancer sufferer to brighten up their journey, or accelerates one piece of research by even a fraction of one percent, then I will live a happy man,” Wilson said.

True to his word, the book is nothing but positivity. It acknowledges the shock of a cancer diagnosis, but holds onto hope of a bright future. There’s even a little wit and humor in it.

“Screening and early detection could save your life, especially if your family has a history of colon cancer, so stick a camera where the sun don’t shine!” Wilson wrote. “It could be the most important image you’ve ever taken.”

Bringing colorectal cancer to light at the legislature

After “Through the Window” was published, Wilson made a new push — this time, aimed at the Colorado legislature.

Currently, the standard age for a colon cancer screening in Colorado is 50. Wilson is pushing for a bill — titled HB20-1103, Colorado Cancer Screening Coverage — that would lower the screening age for colorectal cancer from 50 down to 45.

“I’m a very live example of that,” he said. “I was diagnosed at 48. Had I been screened properly at 45, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about stage 4 cancer. I think that’s a really important message to get out to people — get screened and get screened early.”

He said the bill being signed into law would be a step in the right direction, but educating the public about why they should take advantage of it is a whole other issue to tackle.

“They need to know to get screened,” he said. “There’s a massive education and awareness job to still be done. There are too many people who are already eligible to be screened who aren’t being screened. … People need to put their own screenings first to prevent cancer from happening.”

The bill still has a long way to go before it lands on the governor’s desk.

On Jan. 29, Wilson testified about his support for HB20-1103. Later that day, it passed in the House Health & Insurance Committee.

But it’s just the first hurdle.

“Next stop is appropriations,” Wilson explained. “There are very few implications to the state budget so hopefully that’s a clear path. Then it will go for a full vote in the House, hopefully we’ll get the support there. Then it’s the same process again in the Senate. Of course, we’ll need the governor to sign off in the end.”

“We’re not celebrating yet,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”

‘An amazing conjunction’ at a Denver photo gallery

Fifteen of Wilson’s favorite shots, including his black and white portrait, are now on display for the public to see at one of the few photo galleries in Denver.

The Robert Anderson Gallery sits in a building built in 1910 along E. Colfax Avenue, next to the Bluebird Theater. It still has its original floor and ceiling.

Robert Anderson, the gallery owner, is hosting a show called “Photographers’ Favorites,” which has a grand opening on Feb. 7 from 5-8 p.m. Anderson, who had been in the medical field for years before retiring to work with photo galleries, said the show features his favorite photographers’ most beloved pieces.

Anderson and Wilson met because Anderson was searching for a photographer to feature in his gallery, and Wilson was looking for gallery space to show his work. It wasn’t until Anderson asked for a small artist’s bio on Wilson that he learned about the cancer diagnosis.

“Robert explained his history as chair of internal medicine at UC Anschutz,” Wilson said. “He knew nearly everybody who had treated me — from oncology through surgery — through my cancer journey. … The relationship literally just blossomed from there. An amazing conjunction.”

Anderson said he knows Wilson’s surgeon and oncologist quite well. He saw the latter move up the ranks from intern to resident to a young faculty member, he said.

“I told him, ‘You’re in great hands,’” Anderson said.

And he would know. He had worked at CU Anschutz Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City for many years before he opened the photo gallery along E. Colfax Avenue in 2018.

Anderson said Wilson is one of his favorite photographers because his work is “unique” and “technically superb.”

“It covers a lot of range — from beautiful flowers, to big horn sheep crashing, to wild horses thundering, to a truck full of pumpkins in the snow. Lots of themes,” he said. “You put it together and it’s hard to beat the package.”

He said the black and white self-portrait of Wilson is a great addition to the gallery.

“That image of Scott, once you know his story and what he’s been through — resolve, power, determination,” Anderson said, holding up his arms in the same position. “It’s a human story about somebody who’s faced tremendous adversity and has been strong through it.”

In addition to the portrait, visitors can see photos by Wilson from all over Colorado and beyond.

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After three days of solid rain in Aspen, Scott Wilson snapped this unique shot of Maroon Bells.

Along one wall hangs a photo of Maroon Bells. Gone are the golden aspens, the warmth of fall colors and the bright sky. When Wilson captured this shot, it had rained for three days straight and fog hung heavy below the peaks. He was alone on the typically busy shore when he snapped the dark and dreary photo. He’d later title it “Bells in Mist.”

Guests can also see unique photos of Denver’s skyline, a once-in-a-lifetime shot of the Eiffel Tower, a beloved picture of Picasso, the wild mustang of the Sand Wash Basin, and more.

A life with ‘miles and years’ to go

“Oh, it’s not that cold.”

Wilson knelt on Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, which was well frozen over, on the last day of January. Snow whipped down the nearby mountains and rolled across the lake like a snowy tumbleweed. With the wind chill, it was -8 degrees.

And there was Wilson — sitting in the middle of the dark blue lake, where snow had not yet covered the thick ice. He focused the camera on long cracks in the ice that shot out from a central point, like lightning in a stormy sky. It would be the foreground, he explained.

“I love snow as a landscape enhancer,” he said. “So winter is a brilliant scene for me.”

He was bundled in multiple layers, for both warmth and to protect his skin from the sun. He set up his tripod low to the ice of Bear Lake. A few adjustments. A scooch to the right a little more. And a snap of the shutter.

They’re not award-winning shots, he said, but rather nice captures of a beautiful landscape. And sometimes, that’s enough. The experience, the thrill of the art of reality in front of him — it’s enough.

Besides, so much is still waiting to be found and framed in his viewfinder.

“You can never say you’ve completed Colorado,” Wilson said. “The wildlife, the landscape. I would love to get a picture of a mountain lion, I would love to get a bobcat. I haven’t been to Telluride. It’s endless. I haven’t even scratched the surface. That journey has miles and years to go.”

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Scott Wilson took this shot on Jan. 31, 2020 with a Denver7 crew in the middle of the frozen Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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